TimesUK: Plastic Bags are Not a Problem?

plastico33993.jpegHere’s something to debunk for the weekend. Alexi Mostrous from the Times suggests that there is no scientific evidence that plastic bags cause any of the myriad problems they are blamed for. As a result, he suggest that banning plastic bags is irrational and therefore a bad idea. Specifically, he says:

The widely stated accusation that the bags kill 100,000 animals and a million seabirds every year are false, experts have told The Times. They pose only a minimal threat to most marine species, including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.

The article continues by stating that, indeed, many other forms of plastic, especially fishing gear, are a far bigger problem in terms of causing the death of marine mammals and other sea creatures. If this is true, then indeed, such claims should not be the basis of legislation to ban bags or reduce their use.
But the article fails to suggest that there are dozens of other reasons to ban plastic bags: They use too much petroleum, they poorly biodegrade and may harm groundwater, they are a major source of litter, they add hidden costs to a trip to the grocery store… and they’re wasteful. Billions of plastic bags buried in landfills and blowing around the streets can’t be a good thing right? Do we require an in-depth scientific study to prove these things?
Many will say no, this is just common sense, but to give this article the benefit of the doubt, what’s your response? I take a philosophical point of view that waste, simply put, is bad. Therefore providing incentives for people to use reusable bags from non-intensive natural materials would be a good thing, given the nature of most plastic bags these days. But can anyone come up with a harder, more scientific argument?
Just to throw some salt into the mix, the article also cites a 1968 study that states “A 1968 study of albatross carcasses found that 90 per cent contained some form of plastic but only two birds had ingested part of a plastic bag.”
Plastic bags consumption in 1968 was trivial compared to what it is today and mentioning this study is off base as the mishandling of data the author point out among those striving to ban bags. It certainly suggests he has an agenda.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

7 responses

  1. I think it’s important to note that the article wasn’t saying that plastic bags were good, just that it isn’t right to sloppily use research to support one agenda or another–or to do no research whatsoever–and that there are probably much bigger priorities here to focus on (than plastic bag). We already know that plastic bags are better than paper bags when it comes to carbon emissions (in the aggregate) and the article does site a 400% increase in bin liners (essentially, plastic bags), as result of the shopping bag ban. Clearly, this isn’t what was intended to happen by the bag bans.

  2. aye, yet it’s suspicious that the author seems to imply that plastic bags are not a problem. Looks like we need to see a lot more info on this.

  3. It sounds to me like nurdles are the greatest plastic litter threat. Nurdles are the plastic pellets that serve as inputs to the manufacturing of all things plastic (plastic bags, the bin liners that are replacing them, the keyboard I’m typing on, plastic water bottles, …). If a plastic bag ban leads to a commensurate increase in bin liners then that ban has accomplished exactly nothing. I can see at least two options for improving the situation. Apparently one of the problems with nurdles is that their small size (0.5 to 1.0 mm) makes it easy for them to blow away and get washed into the sea and be confused as food by marine species and seabirds. Could nurdles be redesigned to make escape less likely and to facilitate retrieval of those that do escape? The preferable option is to replace all plastics with materials that biodegrade safely into our environment. That is likely a few years out, but one way to accelerate the process would be to charge people extra for their use of non-biodegradable plastics and use the revenue to fund development of alternatives and to fund cleanup of the plastic mess that we have created.

  4. Oops, I had the size on nurdles wrong. They’re really between 0.1 and 0.5 cm in diameter. But the point is the same … they’re small and they blow into the sea.

  5. I think any move that gets people thinking about alternatives to plastic is beneficial. Agreed — nurdles are a huge problem and therefore anything made from plastic contributes to the nurdle issue. Other small pieces of plastic (like bottle caps, for instance) get eaten by marine animals as well.

    In fact, ALL products made from plastic will degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. So even if you did something about the nurdle problem, you’d still have small pieces of plastic floating around from all the disposable plastic products that have broken down into the environment.

    When I say “degrade” I don’t mean “biodegrade.” Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but degrades into tiny particles of plastic that then concentrate toxins the same way nurdles do.

    Since the middle of last year, I’ve been working on significantly reducing my plastic waste and plastic consumption and documenting the journey on my blog, Fake Plastic Fish. Here is an ongoing list of plastic-free changes I’ve made so far:


    Hope some of these alternatives might be useful to you.


  6. I think the point is that Marine Mammals are really not the important issue, but people get emotional at the site of a turtle chomping down a plastic bag and that emotion has been the basis of this issue. But there are a zillion bigger reasons to get rid of these wasteful bags. So the Times guy is correct, but the fact that he fails to state that this still matters is troubling for sure.

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